Sunday, February 11, 2024

Taylor Swift Is a Welcome Distraction at America's Most Dismal Public Event


It's Super Bowl Sunday, and this is the first Super Bowl I can remember whose discourse is dominated by someone who will be merely attending the event instead of playing or performing at halftime. There's already been a secondary discourse about why the hell conservatives seem so upset at Taylor Swift. I am not here to participate in that, but to proclaim that I welcome how she has added something new and welcome to the Super Bowl mix.

The Super Bowl is by far the most dismal event in American life, and that is saying something. It is supposed to be the championship game of a sport proven to turn its participants' brains into mush, a sport defined by the American dysfunctions of violence and commercial breaks. At this point, however, the Super Bowl is not really a football game. Half of the game's viewers probably have not seen a full football game this season. They are watching because it has become a media spectacle, one of the few that exists anymore that people from the entire broad social spectrum can participate in. It's also just another excuse for the excess consumption of tasteless lite beer and garbage food. It happens on a Sunday evening to boot, making work the next day even more miserable than your average Monday.

A significant chunk of the audience is watching just for the commercials. Is there anything more dismal than advertising being turned into entertainment? The structure of football itself makes this easy, considering that it has frequent breaks, and the ball is barely in play. Famously, there are only eleven minutes of action in a broadcast that lasts over three hours, and a lot of that action is boring two yard runs up the middle. The Super Bowl thus represents the triumph of capitalism where the advertising at the game ends up being more significant than the game itself. 

Even though I can't tear my eyes away, I've long felt that the Super Bowl sucks. It's certainly appropriate that due to changes in the NFL's schedule that it is played in mid-February, the most depressing, wretched time of the year. This year, Taylor Swift's presence has led to Super Bowl backlash for all the wrong reasons from the world's most irritating reactionaries. I, on the other hand, welcome her participation. She will give something to bond with my daughters over, who are normally lukewarm on this event. Swift is a cultural phenomenon on the level of Beatlemania right now, and like Beatlemania it's a lot of fun to participate in. Certainly a lot more fun than three hours of commercials. 

Sunday, January 28, 2024

The Glory of Magazines

I was recently in New York with my children. At one point they asked to go a newsstand to see if they had a copy of the Taylor Swift cover of Time magazine (my daughters are dedicated Swifties.) It struck me in that moment that magazines occupied a very different place in their life than mine, more collectors' items than an essential part of life. 

I owe a lot of who I am to magazines. For years people would compliment me on my the breadth of my knowledge and my ability to recall random facts. I am less impressed by this than others, but I learned a lot of this stuff from being an avid magazine reader in my youth. In junior high I would walk to the public library every day after school and just raid the magazine section, which was the part of the library where I would wait to get picked up. I was not too discriminating. I read Time the most since it was the consensus news magazine at the time, but dipped a toe in Newsweek and US News. I would get intrigued by both The New Republic and The National Review, unaware of their rival ideological perspectives. In a lighter mood, I would peruse People and Life.

At home I had a prized subscription to Sports Illustrated. It gave me a far deeper understanding of the sporting world than I was getting from my daily doses of Sportscenter. I got it every Thursday, the same day my sisters and I went to piano lessons. I always finished first, then would sit on my teacher's basement floor and read the magazine. It was always such a welcome moment of solitude and discovery. At the public library I would branch out and read the now defunct Sport and Inside Sports (for some reason there was no Sporting News.) I also had a subscription to MAD magazine, a publication that greatly attuned my young bullshit detector and allowed me to look at my surroundings with a clearer eye. 

Magazines served me well later in life, too. In high school I would scour the reviews in the back of Spin magazine and use them as a guide to find the kind of indie rock albums they did not play on the radio in my neck of the woods. As a college student I did competitive debate, and to prepared by reading as much of The Economist as I could. In my off hours between classes I would go to the campus library and pick up and read magazines, recreating those middle school moments. Afterwards I had low wage jobs as a gas station and library clerk, and in both cases reading magazines at the counter helped me pass the time in that pre-cell phone world. Once I had my first real job and could afford creature comforts I immediately subscribed to the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker. As often as I could, I would pick up issues of Mojo and Uncut at the bookstore. Some of them were so dense with insights that I've held on to them through multiple decades and moves. 

Magazines have alas fallen on hard times. There's talk that Sports Illustrated will soon be dead after years on life support. Newsweek's new ownership has ties to a cult. It's also been interesting to see that we just can't give them up. When Time announced Taylor Swift as their Person of the Year it dominated public discourse for days after. Evidently the editorial decisions made by magazines still matter to people, even if they were not as seismic as Time's "Is God Dead?" cover from the 60s (or Demi Moore's nude pregnant cover photo on Vanity Fair from the 90s, for that matter.)

Being the Luddite sentimentalist that I am, I have responded to this state of affairs by subscribing to magazines. I had let my New Yorker subscription lapse years ago, but immediately resubscribed the day pandemic lockdown began. Since then a friend gifted my a Texas Monthly subscription, which I enjoyed. I have subscribed to the Atlantic and Vanity Fair (it came free with my New Yorker sub and I've enjoyed it) since then. When I went to the newsstand with my daughters I picked up the most recent New Republic and was so impressed by it that I may indeed add another subscription. Who knows, maybe I will bite the bullet and get the meaty New York Review of Books back in my life (sorry Harper's, you've gone hack.) 

Not all of these publications are paywalled, but even then, it's worth it. The experience of reading a magazine online is so erratic and fractured. When I use my New Yorker app they keep pushing little web articles responding to current events to the top of the feed. I don't subscribe to the New Yorker for that, but for the voluminous studies of subjects that I didn't know I was interested in until I picked up the magazine. Just picking up the magazine is a great experience. It is not an agglomeration of links but a carefully considered product from front to back, the result of great effort and human creativity. (The French Dispatch is one of my favorite Wes Anderson films because it understands the aesthetics of magazines, which are not replicated anywhere else.) 

I am not sure how long paper copies of all the magazines I subscribe to will even be around, so I am trying to cherish them while I can. I also think there's just a chance that they will make a comeback. My daughters have long been intrigued by my copies of the New Yorker and like to formulate their own answers to the cartoon caption contest. They have a couple of subscriptions themselves, a love that I hope will blossom. At a time when the internet has increasingly become a cesspool of AI goop interspersed with popup ads and clickbait links, a well-composed magazine is a necessary antidote. Go read them while you can and maybe we can keep them around longer. 

Monday, January 15, 2024

Iowa Caucus MLK Day Thoughts


There's an irony to the Republican Party holding their first caucus on Martin Luther King Day. On the day we honor a man who demanded that the nation live up to its oft-proclaimed ideals of freedom and justice, we are seeing a wannabe dictator whose slogan is about reversing this country's gains since MLK's times about to trounce his opponents. Nikki Haley, who is supposed to be the "moderate" alternative, is a South Carolina conservative who refused to name slavery as a cause of the Civil War. The "party of Lincoln" has become the inheritor of the Lost Cause and is the political home of the people who fought so hard to stop the civil rights movement. 

This sadly should come as no surprise. King is so universally admired and claimed today that it is hard to know that he was a controversial figure in his lifetime. The FBI had him surveilled and used that information to blackmail him and in 1966 only 27% of white Americans said they had a positive view of MLK. Those people's political children (and hell some of the original bigots are still alive) are Trump's base. 

It's also hard to remember there was a time when King even getting a holiday was controversial. Jesse Helms, the avatar of Southern white racist migration from the Democratic to the Republican Party, tried to filibuster the bill establishing the day. Ronald Reagan, president at the time, implied in his public statements that he was holding his nose and voting for the holiday out of political considerations, rather than his own convictions. Some states like Arizona did not recognize the holiday (as Public Enemy famously denounced) while others used the day to celebrate both King and Confederates. Alabama and Mississippi still celebrate King and Lee's birthday on this day

Eric Foner called Reconstruction "America's Unfinished Revolution," and Dr King's efforts were part of a Second Reconstruction that also remains unfinished. The spectacle of Republican candidates clamoring to show their opposition to birthright citizenship and their support of banning Black history in schools is proof of this (if we still needed any.) While it might be depressing to face these facts 56 years after King's death, I want to use this day as a call to action. His death and the deaths of so many others who fought for equality should not be in vain. It's up to us to carry on their legacy and vindicate them. If anything else, the spectacle in Iowa today is a reminder of the stakes. 

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Low, "Just Make It Stop" (Track of the Week)

Over on my Substack page I wrote about how January 6th is a test that we are currently failing. That reality is hard to hold in my head sometimes, as is a lot of news these days. The daily reports of carnage in Gaza and Ukraine fill me with such sadness, and America's political scene does not fill me with hope. It is hard not to get stuck in a doom loop.

Beyond distancing myself from social media, I have managed to cope by paradoxically embracing my negative emotions. Our broken world is a cruel, capricious place where virtue goes unrewarded and the worst people never face justice. If you try to deny that basic, unalterable fact you will make yourself insane with anger and grief. The best artists and philosophers instead teach us how to endure this existence and even flourish in it despite its inherent absurdity. 

To that end I have been reading Kierkegaard again, but also listening to the right kind of music. Last week while listening to WFMU I happened to hear the song "Just Make It Stop" by Low and it stopped me in my tracks. 

I'd listened to some of Low' music before, but not this song. For a band considered "slow core" it's pretty fast-paced. The lyrics, however, are harrowing. The singer's heart is broken by this world and she begs and pleads for all of it to just stop. She's not suicidal or anything, just tired and worn out and needing a break from the never-ending pain and horror that she knows actually will not ever stop. 

This is an emotion I have felt at many times in my life, a desperate need to escape the inescapable, cruel reality that none of us can break from as long as we are living. Kierkegaard calls despair "the sickness unto death," and "Just Make It Stop" articulates that feeling better than any other song that I've heard. In an especially cruel irony Mimi Parker, the singer of this song, was cut down by cancer in 2022.

Lest you think I am horribly depressed or something, I am not. Making peace with the wretchedness of this world is necessary to overcoming it. In a year that I am sure will prove to be an awful one, the soul needs preparation. Once we dispose ourselves of childish optimism, we can actually get down to the real work of fighting the good fight against the worst of this world, victory or no victory.

Friday, January 5, 2024

Establishing a New News Diet For a New Year

 Over at Substack I wrote a piece that people seem to like about having a better news diet. The new year isn't just a good time to think about what we eat and drink, but also how we engage with the news. 

After I finished writing it I (of course) thought of a lot of things I forgot to mention. For example, it's really important to get a good source of local news (NOT these fly by night Patch sites.) I'm lucky to live in a place where local journalists have established their own site, which I subscribe to. I increasingly believe that people who are frustrated with the lack of change on the national level could profitably channel that emotion into getting involved in their own backyards. 

When I talked about my news diet, I also forgot to mention ProPublica, whose investigative work is invaluable. I also didn't say much about podcasts. I should have mentioned that I used to listen to stuff like the 538 cast and NPR's politics show but then I realized I had to cut out all horse-race coverage. Instead I just listen to analytical stuff like Know Your Enemy and Unclear and Present Danger. So far my news habit has greatly reduced my stress about the state of the world, so I guess I'm not just talking out of my butt in that piece. 

Saturday, December 30, 2023

Predictions for 2024 and the Best of the Blog of 2023

Over on my Substack I made some predictions for 2024. To sum it up, film audiences will continue to embrace non-blockbuster movies, voter turnout will drop, the Constitutional crisis will intensify, social media discourse will continue to fragment, but there will also be signs of a new consensus. 

As I do every year, I like to boost what I consider to be the best of what I've written this year. To start things off, I am most proud of my chapter in The Power and Politics of Bob Dylan's Live Performances: Play a Song For Me, now out with Routledge. It was years in the making and an enjoyable project to complete. 

As far as my online writing goes, here's some things I wrote worth checking out last year:

The Need For A Values Conversation From The Left

I wrote this over at Substack on how the Left has ceded talk of "values" to the Right. This is bad for many reasons, not least that it prevents discussion of the moral failings of capitalism. 

The Crisis We See But Can't Name

I wrote here about the reports of increased mental illness and depression in young people as well as lowered life expectancy. It pairs well with the last post in terms of naming the ways unfettered capitalism is undermining our social fabric. 

The Lockdown Insights Worth Salvaging

I wrote this one staying at my friend's cabin in March, reflecting on what we could get out a pandemic world that had passed. 

ChatGPT and the Monstrousness of Silicon Valley Ideology

I mostly avoided AI discourse because this is all I have to say about it. 

Track of the Week: Fountains of Wayne "Sick Day"

One of my favorites in this series this year

What America Feels Like After A Weekend in Canada

Spending some time in Montreal highlighted what ails the US.

Notes on a Trip to Small Town America

I wrote this after visiting my rural Nebraska homeland. As with the prior post, travel highlighted the challenges we face. 

'Tis the Season for Narragansett Beer

Every now and then I like to extoll the virtues of a favorite low-rent product. 

We Need Languages

Language learning is being attacked across the board, a huge loss as I argue here. 

That Last Day of School Feeling

One of the great things about being a teacher is getting to have the rush of the last of school still in my life. 

70s Airport Movies as Pre-historic Blockbusters

I got into some weird rabbit holes this year, including the airport movies of the 70s.

What the Way July 4th is Celebrated Says About America's Divides

Wrote this one at the request of a longtime friend and reader. It is an interesting way to see the rural-urban split. 

Summer of Springsteen

I did a series this summer where I listened to all of the Boss's albums in order and wrote about them. I think it's pretty great! I capped it off with a Substack about the concert where I finally got to see him.

What I Saw on the Last Day of the Mets Season

My favorite baseball writing of the year. 

Shane MacGowan and the Sadness of Diaspora

Another music essay I am proud of. 

Tuesday's Election Illustrates Why Republicans Gerrymander and Suppress the Vote

This was me beginning to think through my theory that we actually do have a potential consensus on issues like abortion.

Seeing Bob Dylan on a Rainy New Jersey Night

Another great geezer rock show that prompted thoughts on persistence and mortality. 

2023: The Year Reality Died

I am really proud of my framing here. Write your local pundit to get them to adopt it, too!

Saturday, December 23, 2023

Tom Waits, "Christmas Card From A Hooker in Minneapolis" (Track of the Week)

This last week has been a real roller coaster. My winter break began, and on Wednesday I got to see a bunch of my former students at an event at my school. On Thursday, I got to bum around New York City for the day. When I got home, I went into the basement and saw that our boiler was leaking and our heat was off. Turns out we need a new one! Merry fucking Christmas.

In a strange twist of events, this whole fiasco has me feeling more optimistic than I have in awhile. Yeah we are confronted with an annoying and expensive problem, but we are going to fix it. I was also able to find a way to travel with my family instead of being stuck here waiting to get the boiler fixed, so Christmas has been saved, too. In a fit of good feeling I wrote a Substack piece on establishing some good habits for engaging in politics in 2024. The fascists want us confused and hopeless, we need to put our shoulders to the wheel and ignore the bullshit. 

I have to get up at 3AM tomorrow for my flight so I am trying to relax myself by drinking a Manhattan and listening to Tom Waits music from the 70s. I don't think he really showed his true genius until the 80s, but in the polyester decade he cut one of the great sad Christmas songs, "Christmas Card From A Hooker in Minneapolis." It's resonating with me because it's about persevering through some shit times. After every crappy day comes sleep and then a new morning. Maybe that new day will be shit too, but perhaps it won't. 

The whole premise of the song is a dark joke. Christmas cards that come with a yearly round-up of life events usually come from middle-class families wanting to brag on Susie's grades and Bobby's position on the varsity squad. They don't come from sex workers living a hand to mouth existence on the margins of society. The narrator's life is hard. She talks about a record from the person she's writing to, but also that her record player had been stolen. She tried going back to live with her parents in Omaha but "everyone I used to know is either dead or in prison." Now's she's back in Minneapolis "and I think I'm going to stay." By the end she admits she's in jail and needs help. In the worst and most desperate straits, she's still thinking that things can turn around. After all, "I'll be eligible for parole come Valentine's Day." 

The holidays are a time of reflection, which can often make us rue the ways our lives didn't turn out the way we thought they would. But even in the worst circumstances, people still find ways to keep on living. My busted boiler is pretty minor in the grand scheme of things. Tomorrow is another day.